Professor Ismail Jacob (Josef) Mohamed was born on 27 July 1930 in Barkley East, Eastern Cape. His parents divorced before he was five years old. His mother, Rose Fortuin, brought him up. She christened him Ismail Jacobus but at school, he was known as Ismail Mohamed, the name on his birth certificate and to his family and friends as Josef.
Professor Mohamed’s mother worked for White families to earn a living and to ensure the young Mohamed could attend school. He completed his fourth standard at the local primary school in Barkly East, Eastern Cape. He then moved with his mother to Aliwal North, Eastern Cape partly because jobs were difficult to come by in Barkly East, but also because World War II had broken out and his mother lost her job from the family she had worked.
The Fortuins were devout members of the NG Sending Kerk and attended church regularly. He then enrolled at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. The nuns had a profound effect on him and he baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. At this school the medium of instruction was English and he was not very proficient in the language. He failed his examinations that year. He contracted a severe fever, until doctors discovered he had contacted Typhoid and isolated him in the hospital where he remained for five months. Upon recovery, he returned to school, walking the three miles from Radio Springs where the family lived. He topped his class, particularly in Arithmetic, which he loved.
When he was 12 years old, his mother left for Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) to seek employment there. She left Mohamed with his maternal grandmother, Katrina, and sent for him only after she had settled down, in Doornfontein.
His uncles, Jaap and Joey Fortuin, joined the Cape Corps, the only way many rural Coloured families could survive. They took the young Mohamed along to be recruited as well, and lied about his age. It did not work. Mohamed was malnourished and underweight, and did not even look his fourteen years; the Corps did not accept him.
He returned to school, and completed standard six. His mother enrolled him in a secondary school in Vrededorp, Johannesburg. She found him part time jobs, scrubbing and polishing floors and gardening in the homes of the White supervisors she met in the clothing factory she worked, so that he could pay his school fees. In one of these families, he got a job teaching mathematics to the children, since it became known that he was excellent at the subject.
His mother talked about her exploitative wages. Her fellow workers visited her, and talked about trade unions. He followed them to meetings, on street corners, where members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) spoke about workers, and workers unity. The Party set up co- operatives and he bought vegetables from their market and saw that the prices were cheaper.
Mohamed went on to University after matriculating, but it was a struggle remaining there. He did not have enough money and he had a conditional exemption and needed to improve his English mark. He found a job on the railway as a ‘scully’, washing dishes and he took on odd jobs as a handyman. Every free time he got, he used feverishly, reading his books. The White staff in the dining car resented this. They tore up his books. He fought back. They accused him of causing trouble and he lost his job.
In his second year at university, he received a bursary. By this time, his mother became an active member of the Garment Workers Union (GWU). His mother’s activism propelled him into politics. He joined the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) and attended the weekly seminars arranged by the Progressive Forum in Doornfontein. He studied Karl Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, learnt about the Industrial Revolution, and about revolutions in China, India and Algeria. He became an NEUM activist, distributing leaflets during the Alexandra Bus boycott and canvassing members at his mother’s and other factories. He became convinced that workers were of crucial importance, that their political participation was imperative to the liberation of South African Society.
The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) was active at this time but he saw it through critical NEUM eyes. It seemed to him that the organisation’s emphasis on national liberation failed to address the question of the ownership of the means of production and left workers as an exploited, subservient class in a bourgeoisie world. He believed the NEUM’s Ten-point programme gave a clear guidance, while the African National Congress (ANC), appeared to have no fundamental policy.
Mohamed remained aloof from the ANC in his early years at university but became disillusioned with the NEUM in later years. He believed they concentrated in intellectualising small groups but failed to involve in a strategy of action and grew irritated by their verbal attacks on ANC campaigns and boycotts. The Congress of the People impressed him and the Freedom Charter defined for him the working ground he was seeking.
He qualified as a science teacher with physics as a major and Honours in mathematics. In 1955, he took up his first teaching appointment at the William Hills High School in Benoni, Transvaal. He completed his Masters at the Witwatersrand University and in 1957, was awarded a bursary to study mathematics in London.
He lived in a bedsit, in the East End, London, and soon joined the British Labour Party, in North London. He worked with socialist groups and workers groups in the trade union movement to strengthen the socialist wing of the Labour Party, believing that a Socialist Britain would facilitate change in South Africa and in the colonial world.
In 1959, Ellen Rygaardt, a former student of his joined him in London and they married. She found employment as a Laboratory Technician and joined the Paddington Technical College where she completed a diploma in Chemical Technology.
Mohamed then studied for his Ph.D. in Mathematics in Group Theory at London University in 1961, and simultaneously took an appointment as Assistant Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Wales in Cardiff.
Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre they decided to return to South Africa as soon as they could. He had taken up an assistant Lectureship at Queen Mary College (University of London), while still completing his doctorate, but declined the offer of an appointment at the University of London upon his graduation in September 1961. He returned to South Africa instead to participate in the struggle for change.
He accepted an appointment at the University of Witwatersrand and became active in its staff association. He joined the African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA), to work for a social revolution through non-collaboration and boycotts. APDUSA strove to become the leading section of the NEUM, and canvassed support in Black townships and in the rural areas. For a time, APDUSA succeeded in recruiting workers in the homelands but lacking an adequate social base, and losing its leadership to exile, it faltered and collapsed.
Feeling politically immobilised at home, Professor Mohamed and his family left South Africa with their three small children, to take up a lectureship at a University of London College. However, within a year they moved to Lusaka where he became a Senior Lecturer in mathematics at the University of Zambia. Here the Mohameds came into direct confrontation with the politics of the exiled, renewing his acquaintance with his former political colleagues, IB Tabata, Wycliff Tsotsi and Jane Gool, and met members of the ANC and the Pan African Congress (PAC). At the same time, he gained first hand insight into the liberation movements of Rhodesia, Angola and Mozambique.
In 1968, he took up a post at the University of Lesotho at Roma and became active in the Staff Association. His work allowed him to interact with the many young students who came from South Africa, and through them, he refreshed his insight into the political situation. It sharpened his yearning to return home and involve himself in the struggle.
That same year in a joint paper with Professor Heineken, Professor Mohamed solved a major outstanding problem in the field of Group theory, and opened up an extremely fruitful area of mathematical research. Together they constructed a collection of counter-examples, which are now internationally known and cited as the Heineken-Mohamed groups.
In 1975, the family returned to South Africa where he took up a professorship, as Head of the Department of Mathematics, at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). In Cape Town, he worked closely with Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carolus, Johnny Issel and others against Apartheid education. In 1976, they were arrested under the Internal Security Act and detained at Caledon Square, Cape Town and later transferred to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, making it difficult for family to visit.
The UWC fired him because of his political activities. After his release from prison, in 1977, he began working at Witwatersrand University as an associate Professor. However, it was not long before he was made a Professor in the Department. His academic work was far too impressive to be ignored. He was among a handful of Blacks, thus honoured.
Following the June 16, 1976 uprisings in Soweto, Professor Mohamed urged the Black staff to join the students in protest against the State’s war on children. He delivered an address at a South African Students Organisation (SASO) conference, sharing the platform with Winnie Mandela. He was arrested and jailed with many others in the Western Cape under the Preventative Section of the Internal Security Act. He spent three and a half months in detention without charge or trial in 1976.
He threw himself into community work in the townships of Newclare and Coronationville and became immersed in the schools’ boycott, organising Parents Support Committees. Two of his children were arrested. His son who had just turned 17, fled the country with a group of friends, escaping into exile, but some of his friends were arrested and the Mohameds became involved in the long trial that ensued.
Professor Mohamed gave himself unstintingly, speaking at student rallies at the University and in Soweto and other townships. He served on the Anti-Republic Celebrations Committee. The dismissal of workers plunged him into workers support committees and renewed his commitment to trade unionism.
His eldest daughter, Elaine, was detained and charged for furthering the aims of the South African Communist Party. The family went through a tense period, during her trial. She was convicted to five years imprisonment, all of it was suspended.
From 1981 until the un-banning of the ANC, he worked in an underground unit of the ANC together with Ebrahim Ebrahim and Lindiwe Sisulu.
The Mohameds helped set up the Detainees Parents Support Committee. In January 1983, he became a member of the Transvaal steering committee of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and threw himself into the work of the organisation. He was elected as one of the Vice Presidents of the UDF, Transvaal region.
In 1983, he led the Transvaal Anti-Presidents Council Committee and campaigned actively against the tri-cameral parliament. Owing to ill health, he missed the national launch of the UDF in Cape Town, but he was in the throes of the anti-tri-cameral campaign (which the then Government introduced for the Indian and Coloured communities) as soon as he was strong enough.
Professor Mohamed was arrested on 19 February 1985 along with Albertina Sisulu, Frank Chikane, Cassim Saloojee, Sisa Njikelana and Thozamile Gqweta. They were taken to Durban where they joined the eight others on charges of treason in December 1985. Following his detention and trial, he returned to his university teaching post in Johannesburg.
He delivered, amongst others, the Academic Freedom Lecture in 1986 at Rhodes University and a paper on Rights and Concerns in Conflict in South Africa at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC in 1987. His life and that of his family were seriously affected. His wife Ellen and their three eldest children were continuously harassed by security police and kept in solitary confinement, placing significant constraints on his desire to do more in the mathematics arena.
He was a member of both the London and American Mathematical Societies and published in the Journal of Algebra, Journal of London Mathematical Society, the German Mathematics Annalen, South African Mathematical Society of the University of Cape Town and in the Springer Proceedings of the Second International Theory of Groups. The University of Lesotho also honoured him with an Honorary Doctorate. He participated in numerous international conferences and was visiting Professor of Mathematics at the City University of New York. He has published numerous papers in Mathematics.
In 1994, Professor Mohamed became an ANC Member of Parliament. His contributions at Parliament include, amongst others, his contribution to the Green Paper on Science and Technology, his ongoing efforts to secure increased national funding for Science and Technology at Parliament, and his efforts to position and support a dedicated Department of Science and Technology whilst Chairperson of the Sub-committee of Science and Technology. He also represents the Science and Technology Portfolio Committee of Parliament at the National Science and Technology Forum of which he was a founding member.
He served as an MP for three terms eventually retiring in 2009. Professor Ismail Jacob Mohamed passed away on 7 July 2013 in Johannesburg. His wife Ellen, five children and grandchildren survive him.
London Mathematical Society
American Mathematical Society
Shell Postgraduate Bursary 1954
Shell Postgraduate Scholarship 1957
Australian National University Sponsorship to attend Second International Conference in Group Theory, Canberra 1973
Research Publication in:
Journal of Algebra
Journal of the London Mathematical Society
Proceeding of the London Mathematical Society
South African Mathematics Society of the University of Cape Town
Springer Proceedings Second International Conference Theory of Groups
Community and Political Work:
Chairperson of the Dorcas Creche, Western Township, Johannesburg - 1979/81
Member of Western Purpose Multipurpose Centre Project of Johannesburg Child Welfare - 1984
Chairperson: Transvaal ad hoc Anti-President’s Council Committee - 1983
Member - Transvaal Anti-President’s Council Committee - 1983/84/85
National Science and Technology Forum. (2004). Tribute to Professor Ismail Mohamed from
The Who’s who of Science, Engineering and Technology in South Africa, p11 [online], Available at www.nstfawards.org.za [Accessed on 9 July 2013]|
SABC. (2013). ANC veteran Professor Ismail Mohamed dies at age 82 from SABC News, 9 July, [online], Available at www.sabc.co.za [Accessed on 10 July 2013]|
Meer F. (1989 ed). Treason Trial ”“ 1985, (Madiba Publications, Durban) pp 68 ”“ 76,